John Todhunter (1839-1916)

b. Dublin, to a Quaker family; son of Thomas Harvey Todhunter, a merchant; ed. Mountmellick and York; entered TCD and studied medicine after clerking at Pim’s and Bewley’s; winner of Vice-Chancellor’s prize for English Verse, 1864, 1865 & 1866; also took the Gold Medal of the Philosophical Society [TCD], 1866 with an essay; acted as amanuensis to William Stokes while still a student; MB, 1867; MD, 1871; appt. Prof. of English at Alexandra College while still a medical student, following Dowden, 1870;
contrib. Kottabos and Cornhill Magazine (under editorship of W. M. Thackeray); practiced medicine in Dublin; m. Katherine Ball, sis. of Sir Robert Ball; Katherine died in childbirth a year after marriage, leaving a son who died after three years; abandoned Quakerism and medicine; resigned from Alexandra, 1874, and travelled in Europe (incl. Vienna and Paris); visited Egypt; settled in London as a man of letters and chiefly a playwright, with some financial success, 1875; lived at Bedford Park, Chiswick, nr. Yeats and others [1881];
m. Dora L. Digby, 1879; wrote Helena in Troas (London 1885), a dramatic spectacle and architectural extravaganza dir. by Edward Godwin, performed in Hengler’s Circus; wrote libretto for J. C. Culwick’s The Legend of Stauffenberg (Dublin 1890), a dramatic cantata; wrote The Poison Flower (London 1890), a gothic drama based on a story by Hawthorne, with Florence Farr in the lead role; becoming involved in the founding of the Irish Literary Society, he wrote A Sicilian Idyll, also with Florence Farr, a play thrice reviewed by W. B. Yeats; became a friend of John Butler Yeats;
wrote A Black Cat ( Independent Th. Soc., at the at the Opera Comique, 8 Dec. 1893), an Ibsenite tragedy, his first in prose, featuring the aesthete Cyril Vane, which stood for only one night; followed with A Comedy of Sighs (1894), a four-act play set in ‘drawing room at Southwood Manor’ on a similar theme and similarly with homosexual overtones, produced with a poster by Beardsley and booed off the stage when premiered as a current-raiser with W. B. Yeats’s Land of Hearts Desire (Avenue Th., 19 March 1894);
issued a Life of Patrick Sarsfield (1895) in the New Irish Library series; best-known for a lecture published as The Theory of the Beautiful (1872); notable poetry incl. The Fate of the Sons of Usna, and “A Dream of Egypt”; d. Chiswick; portrait by H. M. Paget in national Gallery of Ireland; papers held in Trinity College, Dublin (Dowden correspondence), and Reading Univ. Library. CAB PI DIB DIL JMC DBIV FDA OCIL

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  • Laurella and Other Poems (London 1876), 288pp.;
  • Notes on Shelley"s Unfinished Poem The Triumph of Life (Printed for Private Circulation 1877), 21pp. [available online]
  • Alcestis: A Dramatic Poem (London 1878), 195pp.;
  • The True Tragedy of Rienzi; Tribune of Rome (London: Kegan Paul 1881), 138pp.
  • Forest Songs & Other Poems (London: Kegan Paul 1881), 116pp.;
  • Helena in Troas (London: Kegan Paul 1886);
  • The Banshee and Other Poems (London: Kegan Paul 1888), 148pp.;
  • How Dreams Come True (1890), 56pp. [PI only];
  • A Sicilian Idyll (London: Elkin Mathews 1891), 39pp. [pastoral play in verse];
  • The Poison Flower (London 1891), 24pp. [fantasy in 3 scenes];
  • The Legend of Stauffenberg (1890), dramatic cantata;
  • The Irish Bardic Tales (London: J. M. Dent 1896), 160pp. [verse];
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs (London: Elkin Mathews 1904), 96pp.;
  • An Essay in Search of a Subject (London 1904), 52pp.
  • The Life of Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan [New Irish Library] (London: Unwin; Dublin: Sealy, Bryers, & Walker 1901), 204pp.
  • From the Land of Dreams, intro. by T. W. Rolleston (Dublin: Talbot; London: Unwin 1918), 115pp. [Irish poems];
  • Essays, foreword by Standish J O’Grady (London: Elkin Mathews 1920), 171pp.;
  • Isolt of Ireland: A Legend in a Prologue and Three Acts [and] The Poison Flower (London & Toronto: J. M. Dent 1927), 132pp.
  • Trivium Amoris [and] The Wooing of Artemis (London & Toronto: J. M. Dent 1927), 71pp.
  • Selected Poems, ed. E. L. Todhunter & A. P. Graves (London: E. Mathews & Marrot 1929), 236pp;
  • A Study of Shelley (London: Kegan Paul 1881) [var. 1880 PI].
Note: Most of theses titles have been reproduced by facsimile publishers Add. titles listed on internet: The Black Cat; Shelley and the Marriage Question (1889, 19pp.); The Cenci: A Tragedy in Three Acts; An Essay on Essays (1896);

See also: “How Thomas Connolly met the Banshee”, in Fair and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, ed. W. B. Yeats (London: Walter Scott 1888) - in RICORSO Library, “Irish Classics > W. B. Yeats” - via index, or direct.)

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Christina Hunt Mahony, ‘John Todhunter: An Examination of His Works and His Place in the Irish Literary Revival’ (NUI [doct. thesis] Dublin 1988); A. N. Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: A New Life (London: Macmillan 1988), remarks on Theory of the Beautiful (1872); note on Todhunter in John Kelly, ed., Letters of W. B. Yeats: 1865-95 (Vol. 1; OUP 1986); see notices in Irish Book Lover vols. 8 & 9. See also remarks in Dunleavy, Douglas Hyde: Maker of Ireland (1991) under Commentary, infra.]

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W. P. Ryan, The Irish Literary Revival (1894), Yeats introduced Todhunter to the Irish Literary Club, in 1888 [33]. Further, offers a literary sketch:‘he leads us round a world of dreams, legends, forest-songs, old tragedies and mysteries; through a world sometimes antique, often haunting, often idyllic’ [98].

Times Obituary

The death of Dr. John Todhunter took place on Wednesday at his residence in Bedford Park.
  He was born in Dublin in 1839, his father being a merchant of English origin and Quaker ancestry. He was educated at York School and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he won the Vice-Chancellor’s prize for English verse three times. He took his M.D. in Dublin and practised medicine for a couple of years, but gave it up for travel, study, and literary work. He was Professor of English Literature at Alexandra-College, Dublin, from 1870 to 1874. He then made his permanent home in London, where his house became a resort for artists and men of letters. During recent years informal “symposia” were held there about once a fortnight, when friends gathered at his fireside to discuss poetry and philosophy.
 Todhunter’s first volume was a collection of narrative and lyrical poems entitled Laurella (1876). Grace, tenderness, and melody marked these poems; in later years he did much stronger work under the influence of ancient Celtic literature, to the study of which he was led by the memorable rendering of the Cuchullin legend published in 1878 by Standish O’Grady. The Banshee (1888) and Three Bardic Tales (1896) contain the best of Todhunter’s work in poetry. Three plays of his have been acted with success; one of them, The Black Cat, produced by the Independent Theatre in 1893, was a factor in the revival of the literary drama. His translation of Heine’s Buch der Lieder is perhaps the best complete English version of a work than which none more irresistibly attracts or more cruelly eludes the art of the translator. He was also author of a few brief prose works, including a Life of Sarsfield and a Study of Shelley.
 At one time he was a familiar figure at the Savile Club, but for some years his delicate health and his constitutional hatred of noise and bustle kept him far from town life. He was a man of striking appearance, and the sweetness, unselfishness, and loyalty of his character gave to intimacy with him a charm and fragrance which his friends will not easily forget.

Available at World News - online [accessed 12.01.2012].


W. B. Yeats (Autobiographies), ‘The Tragic Generation’, Bk. IV: ‘If he had like anything strongly he might have been a famous man, for a few years later he was to write under some casual patriotic impulse, certain excellent verses now in all Irish anthologies; but with him every book was a new planting, and not a new bud on an old bough.’ (p.117; see also under Richard Kain, Dublin in the Age of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, 1972, infra.)

W. B. Yeats (Autobiographies): ‘I persuaded John Todhunter to write a pastoral play [Sicilian Idyll] ... the one unmistakeable success of his life.’ (Autobiographies, p.120.) ‘[He was] incapable of any emotion that could give life to a cause.’ Further: A Comedy of Sighs, produced and withdrawn by Forence Farr, after a humiliating failure, was ‘a rambling story ... with a little paradoxical wit.’ He was ‘melancholy’ and ‘dejected’ in temperament. (q.p.)

W. B. Yeats (Autobiographies, 1955): ‘... a rambling tale told with a little paradoxical wit [...] for two hours and a half, pit and gallery drowned the voices of the players with boos and jeers that were meant to be bitter to the author who sat visible to all in his box surrounded by his family, and to the actress [...]. then pit and gallery went home to spread their lying story that the actress had a fit of hysterics in her dressing-room. / Todhunter has sat on to the end, and there were, I think, four acts of it, listing to the howling of his enemies, while his friends slipped out one by one, till onse say everythere their empty seats, but nothing could arose the fighting instincts of that melancholy man [...] I tried to get him to publish his book of words with satirical designs and illustrations by Beardsley [...] He shared the superstition still current in the theatre, that the public wnats sincere drama, but is kept from it by some conspiracy of managers or newspapers, and could not get it out of his head that the actors were to blame. Shaw, &c.’ (Quoted in [Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing Derry: Field Day 1991, Vol. 3, p.422; see further under Shaw, supra.)

W. B. Yeats (Autobiographies, 1955): ‘[Todhunter] looked exactly like God in an illustrated family Bible.’ Further, on Sicilian Idyll, in Boston Pilot: ‘I have rarely heard better verse spoken than by the lady who takes the part of the sherpherdess heroine, Amaryllis.’ (Quoted in Frank Tuohy, Yeats, 1976, p.56.) Note that Yeats wrote on Todhunter for Providence Sunday Journal in 1899 (cited in Louis MacNeice, Yeats, 1944, p.48).

Note also: (Roy Foster makes the point that ‘Blake was a familiar presiding deity in Bedford Park where the Yeatses lived in London, and that the fellow-Dubliner John Todhunter emphasised in communications with Yeats that “no one had yet mastered Blake’s mystical language and myth”’. (Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life, Vol. 1, 1997, p.99, citing a letter of 9 Nov. 1891 (NLI MS 5925). [BS April 2015.]

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Douglas Hyde: on meeting John Todhunter, a neighbour of Yeats at Bedford Park, Hyde offers this description: ‘A thin, distinguished looking man, of medium build, with finely chiselled features. His wife is one of the Digbys; I know her sister. We had a long talk, and Dr Todhunter told me a Norse tale, and told it very well.’ (Diary, 30 March 1892; quoted in Dominic Daly, The Young Douglas Hyde, 1974, p.152.)

Yeats and Hyde: Janet Dunleavy writes - ‘Hyde would spend hours tracking down elusive bits of information. Yeats would devote the same time to writing letters to able people like Hyde who could root out and present him with what he required. Hyde did not mind Yeats’s steady stream of research requests, although they often took hours to fill, because he found the subjects intrinsically interesting He was therefore merely amused to receive two letters from Yeats in December 1888, asking for help in finding “some ragged peasant ready to sell his rags cheap.” A pencil sketch of what Yeats had in mind accompanied the request. The clothes were needed by the Royal Irish Academy, Yeats explained, for an artist by the name of Nash who had been commissioned to illustrate John Todhunter’s Tom Connolly and the Banshee. Hyde obliged, and in February 1889, having received the “peasant rags,” Yeats asked Hyde’s advice on what should be sent to the “old fellow”: “clothes, money, tobacco?” Never fully understanding Hyde’s tongue-in-cheek replies but nevertheless thankful for his help, Yeats welcomed opportunities to do him a good deed in return. He praised Hyde’s work to the editor of the Academy; he introduced him to David Garnett of Fisher Unwin; he urged young poets to read his essays and translations.’ (Janet Egleson Dunleavy & Gareth W. Dunleavy, Douglas Hyde: a Maker of Modern Ireland (California UP 1991, p.133; available at Univ. of California E-Press - online.)

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Richard Kain, Dublin in the Age of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce (Oklahoma UP 1962; Newton Abbot: David Charles 1972): ‘One of his [Yeats’s] favorite images of organic growth was the tree. In accounting for the literary failure of his father’s friend John Todhunter, Yeats detected a lack of passion and the absence of harmonious growth: “If he had liked anything strongly he might have been a famous man, for a few years later he was to write, under some casual patriotic impulse, certain excellent verses now in all Irish anthologies; but with him every book was a new planting, and not a new bud on an old bough.”’ (p.174.)

W. B. Stanford, Ireland and the Classical Tradition (IAP 1976; 1984), writes of John Todhunter’s Alcestis (1879) and Helena in Troas (1886), ‘hardly more than academic exercises’ (p.92).

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Christina Hunt Mahony, ‘The Fall of Wilde and Aesthetic Retrenchment in the London Theatre from 1893 to 1895’ (Paper proposal for “Ireland, Modernism & the fin de siècle” [Symposium], at Mary Immaculate College/Univ. of Limerick, April 2010): ‘[...] His Helena in Troas was one of the society entertainments of its season, and made Todhunter the darling of the illustrated weeklies. His new Ibsenite dramas were groundbreaking on the English stage. He survived the crossover in fashion from verse to prose, a transition which confounded many playwrights of the era. But after Oscar Wilde was arrested and later convicted and imprisoned the bewildered Todhunter saw his prestige and popularity wither on the strength of a single character in his daring The Black Cat. Representations that theatre professionals and the public at large had admired and applauded became pariahs. Todhunter was one of many victims in the 1895 season which will be contrasted with the stellar season served up to London theatregoers in 1893.’

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Peter Kavanagh, The Irish Theatre (Tralee: The Kerryman 1946), lists Alcestis, dram. poem (1897); The True Tragedy of Rienzi, Tribune of Rome (1881); Helena in Troas, dram. poem (1886); How Dreams Come True, dram. sketch in 2 scenes (1890); The Legend of Stauffenberg, dram. cantata (1890), mus. by J. C. Culwick; A Sicilian Idyll, past. (5 May 1890); The Poison Flower, phantasy (1891); Isolt of Ireland, legend in a prologue and three acts (1907); A Comedy of Sighs; The Black Cat, 3 act play (Independent Theatre at Opera Comique, 8 Dec. [but see also Yeats, Autobiog. and FDA3 note, p.421, Florence Farr, Avenue Theatre, March 1894]) 1893; Isolt set on deck of ship on Irish sea, incl. Syngean dialogue.

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Brian Cleeve & Anne Brady, A Dictionary of Irish Writers (Dublin: Lilliput 1985), note that he contrib. Thackeray’s Cornhill Magazine; gave up med. and went to London, 1874; influenced by Standish [Hayes] O’Grady.

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Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 2, p.473; A Comedy of Signs (1894) put on at the Avenue Theatre as a curtain raiser to Yeats’s Land of Heart’s Desire; play failed and was replaced by Shaw’s Arms and the Man. Further, Vol. 3, p.172 selects lines in Johnstone’s Old Lady Says ‘No’! avowedly from Todhunter; p.421 [with A Comedy of Sighs with The Land of Heart’s Desire, and taken off, March 1894; but see Kavanagh, supra]; pp.422-24 [Todhunter in Yeats’s Autobiography, ‘The Tragic Generation’, Bk IV, extract]; p.625 [Thomas Kinsella characterises ‘John Todhunter’s lyrics’ with Robert Dwyer Joyce’s political ballads as a relief from the incompetence in ‘hideous anthologies’ during a hundred years (‘The Irish Writer’, in Mangan, Davis, Ferguson?, 1969].

Daniel Karlin, ed., The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse (London: Penguin 1997), incls. John Todhunter - with 8 other Irish poets: William Allingham, Jane Barlow, Edward Dowden, William Larminie, James Clarence Mangan, George William Russell [AE], Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats ... amidst tens of English poets.

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Libraries & Booksellers
Ulster Libraries: Belfast Linen Hall Library holds Life of Patrick Sarsfield (1895). Belfast Public Library holds Banshee (1888); Essays, with pref. by Standish O’Grady (1920).

Hyland Books (Cat. 214), An Essay in Search of a Subject (1904) [priv. opuscula issued to Members of the Sette of Odd Volumes; ltd. edn. 199 copies.

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Florence Farr appeared as Amaryllis in A Sicilian Idyll, performed at Bedford Park Clubhouse, May 1890, greatly impressing Yeats with her verse-speaking. (See A. N. Jeffares, W B Yeats: A New Life, 1988, p.51.)

James Joyce: In Todhunter’s story “How Thomas Connolly met the Banshee”, anthologised in Yeats’s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), there is a comic allusion to a painting presumably called “Ecce Homo” in the Roman Catholic pro-Cathedral (Marlborough St., Dublin) - which supplies a visual comparison with the appearance of the banshee of that dialect narrative:

“God forgive me for sayin’ it, but ’twas more like the face of the “Axy Homo” beyand in Marlboro Sthreet Chapel nor like any face I could mintion - as pale as a corpse, an’ a most o’ freckles on it, like the freckles on a turkey’s egg.’ (p.109.)

[James Joyce:] This is unlikely to be the work of the same time on which Joyce wrote an essay in September 1899 - apparently intended for Fr. Finlay’s Irish Review when he encountered it at the RHA in that month. If so, however, it was already ten years old at least. Yeats does not supply the source of Todhunter’s story. (See Fair and Folk Tales [... &c.], in RICORSO Library, “Irish Classics > W. B. Yeats” - via index, or direct.)

Note: The story has been reprinted digitally as part of the New Zealand “Ghosts and Other Haunts / Ireland” webpage online - accessed 12.01.2012.

Kith & Kin: A John Todhunter - poss. an uncle - is listed as a Director of the National Assurance Company of Ireland, among others incl. Benjamin Guinness and James Digges Latouche, John Hone, John O’Brien, Thomas Pim, Stephen Greham, James Connolly [sic], et al., with principal offices at No. 3, St. Stephen’s Green, and a capital of £1,000,000 - in The Enniskillen Chronicle and Erne Packet (1 Jan. 1824) - available at Ireland Old News website - online; submitted by Alison Kilpatrick - vide; accessed 12.01.2012.)

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